> Volume 6 > Number 14


Michel Gondry

Jim Carrey
Kate Winslet
Mark Ruffalo
Kirsten Dunst
Elijah Wood
Tom Wilkinson
Jane Adams

Release: 19 Mar. 04

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


“When I behold upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance.
Then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
In a drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity.”
      --John Keats, Stanzas

My initial reaction to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was one of excited disappointment. While I had problems with the way director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman told the story, I was enamored with the film’s dedication to romance, breakup, and the memories that connect them. Given that I had been dissatisfied on first viewing of Adaptation., the Kaufman script that would ultimately land on my top ten list for 2002, I chose to give Eternal Sunshine a second try. The revisit was more than elucidating.

Where I faltered at first was my entry into Kaufman’s zany world. I spent most of Eternal Sunshine looking for the almighty Meaning instead of taking every nuance in. This is a film built on the strength of the scenes, and the flow between them. It is an achievement for both filmmakers, neither of whom were near this assured nor articulate in their previous outing, Human Nature. The meaning I drew from my first view was still pertinent, but the intricate plots and intense performances were so commanding on second viewing that my estimation of Eternal Sunshine rose tenfold.

Kaufman’s script begins strong enough -- and the film’s first 20 minutes are so well made that, even in my dubious days I was enthralled with it -- as Joel (Carrey) makes an impromptu dash for a LIRR train to Montauk instead of going to work in the city. There, he meets Clementine (Winslet), a free spirit whose emotions are paralleled by her constantly changing hair color. Their conversation is off-hand but oddly intimate. They share a fine evening together, enjoying each other’s imperfections (she coolly distances people from herself, he remains in a constant state of self-doubt). And then, as the credits roll, Joel sobs, unwilling to accept that Clementine now acts like she doesn’t know who he is.

Like most films (especially of the Kaufman-esque novelty variety), the promotional campaign has given away too much, establishing that Clementine has gone to Lacuna and had all her memories of Joel erased by a minor bit clinically-inflicted of “brain damage.” Joel, struggling to understand why she’s done such a thing, signs up for the same procedure to remove her from his mind.

The vast majority of the film takes place in the inner-regions of Joel’s psyche as he walks through his days with Clementine. Lacuna technician Stan (Ruffalo) is simultaneously monitoring Joel’s brain as his laptop, through the magic of what looks like a colander, zaps the offending Clementine. Forced to walk backwards through time, Joel first encounters the final days of their affair, a time that was heartbreaking because of their inability to accept each other. But things change when Joel goes back far enough to find the happier times, when they were close. He screams to the technician he knows is in his bedroom to stop, “Please let me keep this memory.” Not that it matters since Stan can’t hear the catatonic Joel, nor would care as he drinks with his fellow technician Patrick (Wood) who’s now dating Clementine, and cavorts with Lacuna receptionist May (Dunst; in a wonderful, understated performance comparable to the one given by Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich).

“A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of tomorrow’s dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a Chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer. So certain is there nothing in spiritual things, perfect in this world,” said John Donne, whose career famously took changed after his own romance was destroyed by others. Although Joel isn’t jailed like Donne, he is forced to remain imprisoned by these memories; first the ones that took him to Lacuna, those that hurt him; then the ones that made him love Clementine in the first place, the ones he doesn’t want to part with.

The race between Joel and the laptop destroying his memories is one of commandingly sympathetic proportions. No longer does Clementine seem sour, uncaring, and wholly undeserving of Joel -- now, in the distant confines of their budding romance, she’s spirited and brings life to Joel. There’s no doubt that she’ll ultimately be obliterated, but the attempts they make to save the memories, even just one, are beautifully told.

Enraptured by the beauty of these scenes inside Joel, I felt distracted by the subplots that unfold in the waking life. The Lacuna troupe is integral to the telling of this story (and I am quite thankfully with Kaufman that he chose not to turn this into a race between man and machine as Stan tensely stares at the laptop to find the roving subconscious Joel lest his customer become brain-dead like in Paycheck) but their extended screen time fails to hold-up next to the heart of the story, which is the memories of the romance.

The existence of this organization, the embodiment of Sholem Asch’s statement that “Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition for our existence” helps to put this deeper examination of romantic fragmentation into motion, but their extended importance as the film continues only serves to boost the film’s running time (a version with these scenes cut down -- including that unnecessary Patrick-Clementine subplot -- would run thiry minutes shorter and would likely not be taken as seriously without an obligatory 2-hour duration). Maybe it’s just too obtuse, or I’m just not yet accepting what is clearly brought by these subplots (perhaps a third viewing is warranted), but outside of some machination with May towards the end, this all feels misguidedly perfunctory.

But those complaints fail to really take me away from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and its ultimate impact, with its spot-on finale. This film stuck with me after that first viewing, however much I questioned it. This is a much more mature, understated film in the Kaufman oeuvre, devoid of many of the twisty-turny convolutions that he’s perfected under the direction of Spike Jonze. While I cannot say that either form of Kaufman is superior, I can say that both sides of the writer -- not unlike the simultaneously con- and disjoined twin versions of himself presented in Adaptation. -- are constantly compelling and deserving of the unending praise he’s/they’ve received

©2004, David Perry,, 2 April 2004